AUBURN — Laura Wong sat in assembly Wednesday with other first-graders, waiting.
Saint Dominic Academy students gathered for a Mass with Bishop Richard Malone, head of Maine's Catholic Church. He was there to celebrate the start of school.
Wong, 6, said she was glad to be in school. “I like it at school. You get to learn a lot of stuff. I like coloring.”
Soon Malone came in carrying his staff, wearing a red robe and a mitre (a bishop's hat).
“Good morning,” he said, beaming. “It's a joy to be with you.”
One of his favorite things is visiting St. Dom's, he said. “You are a wonderful community of young people, faculty. A wonderful community of faith and learning.”
He said they would pray that the Holy Spirit opens their minds and hearts to God and to all of the learning they'll be offered this year.
When it came time for his sermon, Malone walked through the aisle, occasionally inviting students to answer questions.
He said that a few years ago, he overheard a conversation among young mothers who had just brought their children to kindergarten. They wanted their little ones to grow up and go to good colleges or universities.
One mother said she wanted her daughter to go to a good college, but more importantly, she wanted her daughter to someday go to heaven.
“Wow!” Malone said, and began to tell “the big God story,” from evolution to today. “I'll give you the whole story very quickly,” he said.
God created everything, he said. “You know how long ago the universe began? Scientists say the Big Bang happened 14 billion years ago.” God's been working on it that long, he said.
After the first thinking humans emerged, God tested them, but “they said no to God,” Malone said. Ever since, “things have been fouled up. We've got wars, abuse, stealing, people hurting each other. Something bad happened at the very beginning. We call it 'original sin.'”
God sent prophets to try to make things better, then his son. Jesus came “to teach us how to live in a way that makes us happy, makes other people's lives better.” After Jesus died and rose from the dead, he chose his followers. “Guess who else he chose?” Malone said.
“Us!” the students answered.
“Absolutely,” Malone said. “He stays with us in the church through the Holy Spirit.” That “is the great big story in the short form, from creation down to ourselves. We now are part of God's greatest story. He's chosen all of us to be his friends and workers and make the world more of a place of love, justice, reconciliation of truth.”
After the lecture, hundreds of students came forth for Communion. Young students wore dress uniforms, the boys in white shirts with black ties and pants, girls in black and gray skirts or jumpers with white blouses. Older students dressed up.
As the gathering ended, the bishop offered advice for the tough days.
“Sometimes, you'll come to school from a difficult situation at home," he said. "We all have those kinds of things. Remember, you have one another here. And remember always, the Lord Jesus is by your side. If you are attentive to that, it will make all the difference.”
It works for him, Malone said.
Saint Dominic Academy is the only Catholic school in Lewiston-Auburn. This year, students number 565 in prekindergarten through grade 12. Last year, enrollment was 599. Tuition ranges from about $3,000 a year for the younger grades to $9,000 for high school.
Having the bishop visit to celebrate Mass, give a talk and bless the schools is a big deal to the school community, said first-grade teacher Lisa Ferron.
“That's like the opening of the whole school year," she said. "We wait for that.”